The central idea behind The Mountaintop is compelling: how did Dr Martin Luther King Jr spend the night before he was assassinated? But even as it is a powerful reminder of an important life lost, with two equally powerful performances, some of that power is lost inside playwright Katori Hall’s sometimes metaphysical exploration of King’s last night on earth.
Brought together by divine fate (and a cup of coffee) on a stormy 1968 night at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, King finds himself in conversation with Camae, one of the motel’s maids. Through the play’s 90 minutes, Hall not only serves up King’s civil rights messages of love and hope, it also provides a glimpse behind King’s public facade. This is an every man’s King who has holes in his socks, cheats on his wife, and is very much aware of his own mortality. The two share squares (cigarettes), King cowers as the thunder and lightning outside rage on, and the two even engage in a pillow fight; there is an intimacy between the two that humanizes King and his message. And while that connection helps to mitigate Camae’s real motive, by the end of the night I wished we had spent more time in King’s real world.
But even as Hall’s twist takes us into territory that waters down the strength of her central message, there is no denying the powerful performances from Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint.
Johnstone does an impressive job as King without getting caught up in any real impersonation, but what makes his performance that much stronger is in the delicate balance between the two versions of the man we see on stage: the public King and the private. Balint is equally as nuanced; playful, strong, hesitant and sorrowful, she brings as many layers to her performance as Johnstone. It is no wonder the connection between the two is immediately felt and rings true.
Director Janet Wright does a great job keeping the action moving within the confines of set designer Ted Roberts’ realistic run-down motel room and Candelario Andrade’s projections are at times both realistic and otherworldly. As King is finally shown the Promised Land in the play’s final scene, we are bombarded with images that inspire hope.
It is no coincidence that The Mountaintop takes to the Arts Club Granville Island stage during Black History Month in Canada. Hall’s play serves as reminder just how far we have come, but perhaps more importantly, how far we have yet to go. That in itself makes The Mountaintop powerful.
The Moutaintop by Katori Hall. Directed by Janet Wright. On stage at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage (1601 Johnston St, Vancouver) until March 14. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.